CLEVELAND, Ohio – Violence involving students in school is on the rise throughout Northeast Ohio and the country.
Physical fights, threats of violence, bomb threats and guns — both real and fake — have all been reported in schools this fall. Bedford High School temporarily moved to remote learning amid a rise in fights and threats. The Akron Public Schools’ superintendent and teachers union met this month to discuss a spike in “highly disturbing” student behavior.
Districts have been working to find ways to stop the violence and disruptive behavior. But why is the issue so widespread?
Twenty months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northeast Ohio, child psychologists say it remains a major factor that has influenced students’ behavior. Dr. Sheerli Ratner, a psychologist at MetroHealth, said the uptick in school violence is “very much related to COVID.”
“It’s almost as if things are picking up where they left off, but now there are all these other factors and mental health issues,” Ratner said.
The Bedford City School District suspects the pandemic is having an effect on its students and families, spokeswoman Denise Dick said. At the high school, fights have broken out between students, but also between students and staff.
The stress could be related to economic issues, or the loss or illness of a loved one, Dick said.
“Additionally, this school year is the first time many of our students have been in a school building every day in more than a year and some are struggling with that adjustment,” she said. “The pandemic has taken a toll on society as a whole.”
Dr. Carolyn Landis, a pediatric psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, said she has heard from a lot of her patients about the violence in school.
“It’s getting to the point where people are getting injured,” she said. “Things like kids throwing books at each other, cursing at teachers, I mean, it’s been kind of a free-for-all. It’s been like that for a while but I think during the pandemic everyone is stressed, parents are stressed; it goes down to the kids.”
What child psychologists are saying about school violence
There are a number of ways the pandemic has affected students’ emotional and mental health, child psychologists said.
When children in K-12 schools moved to remote learning early in the pandemic, they missed out on developing some of the social skills they would hone around their classmates, Ratner said.
“Everyone is a little bit socially stunted and behind from where they should be,” she said. “As parents, educators, administrators, board members, we have to acknowledge and we have to deal with that.”
In addition, remote learning may have given some students more time to get in trouble outside of school, she said. While there is no definitive data on the subject, children who have more time on their hands typically have more time to misbehave, Ratner said.
Stress, loneliness and isolation have also led to a change in the way students interact with each other at school, Ratner said. Those issues could affect a student’s behavior, and bubble up to violence.
Landis said it’s important to remember that irritability and anger can be a symptom of depression in children. It could also lead to aggressive behavior, she said.
“The stressors of everything, not getting to do their usual enjoyable activities, not having the social support that they had, is making them experience more depressed mood,” Landis said. “I’m not surprised that this is coming to a head now.”
How violence is affecting Northeast Ohio schools
About 95% of Akron Public Schools students are meeting the district’s standards for good behavior, district spokesman Mark Williamson said. The students who have posed a risk to others’ safety have faced serious consequences, including expulsion and arrest, he said.
The Akron Public Schools also see the pandemic as the main reason violence is on the rise in schools, Williamson said.
“We do believe the year away from the classroom due to COVID-19 is a contributing factor to the anger and frustrations of students,” he said. “There is also evidence of this in the number of cases of youth violence taking place outside of our schools, in our neighborhoods.”
The Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports at the schools though has decreased the number of assaults over the years, he said.
The school district is aggressively addressing students who are misbehaving. The district also has increased safety measures in the buildings.
“So, while we are disciplining more students than we have in the past, most of these involve students fighting with one another in our buildings. The number of physical assaults and issues with weapons are actually down from previous years,” Williamson said. “It is clear that anxieties are high and we, as other communities and districts, will continue to work to address the root causes of student behavior and the needs of all students.”
Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon said he recently spoke with his student advisory committee to discuss the rise in violent behavior and disruptions. The committee pointed out four reasons it might be taking place, all related to the pandemic.
First, students are experiencing high levels of physical and mental stress, Gordon said.
“That manifests itself in taking mental health days or small things becoming big things fast,” he said. “So I bumped into you in the hallway and all of a sudden it’s a shoving match or a fight or something.”
The committee also said students have been taking on more adult responsibilities amid the pandemic; students have feared contracting COVID-19 or are skeptical of the vaccine; and students and living with a “checked out” feeling because their typical routines have been altered, Gordon said.
Local school districts said they are taking steps to address the problem. Cleveland has invested in social and emotional learning practices; the goal is to help students be aware of themselves and others, and to get students the help they need to prevent any outbursts.
Bedford, meanwhile, is hiring more security for the high school and adding more social-emotional learning staff to help students process their feelings constructively.
Gordon does not believe the issues he’s seeing in Cleveland are as severe as those being reported in other school districts across the U.S. He also pointed out that the vast majority of Cleveland students are not being disruptive.
“These are some good kids and are in a high-stress environment,” Gordon said. “They need attention, support and love.”
Solutions available to lower violence among students, psychologists say
Child psychologists also offered suggestions for reducing violence.
Students need to reconnect with each other and with their teachers and administrators, Ratner said. Furthermore, school districts need to focus on preventative care and early intervention, rather than reacting to violence.
“We need to problem-solve, we need to help teach our children and our faculty coping skills to deal with stress,” Ratner said. “We are all traumatized. We need better coping tools.”
Even something as simple as sending love and hope to someone else could help take pain and transform it into growth, Ratner said.
“School violence is not new; it’s been around before the pandemic, but now there are more complications, factors and layers to this,” she said.
Students may be talking to their friends about some of their struggles, but Landis suggests they should have at least one adult to talk to about their anger or sadness. She said it doesn’t have to be a parent; it could also be someone like a teacher, coach or psychologist.
They need someone who will be there for them and who will have their back, Landis said. It doesn’t have to be every day, but this person can be “their person,” she said.
“Someone that is listening to this kid on what’s going on, how they’re feeling, what problems they are dealing with, is it school, is it siblings, is it being bullied, is not being able to control their emotions or anger,” Landis said. “It’s not about what to do when you’re angry it’s about who’s your person, who’s your adult.”